Childhood & Education
William Butler Yeats was born on 18 June 1865 in County Dublin, Ireland to John Butler Yeats, a lawyer turned portrait painter and Susan Mary Pollexfen, daughter of a wealthy family from county Sligo. His father was a supporter of nationalism and the nationalist movement in the country. Initially wanted to be lawyer, John Butler was studying law at the time of his marriage but abandoned the study and moved to England in 1876, where he earned fame as a great painter and died in 1922. William Butler's siblings, his brother Jack absorbed his father's artistic talents, becoming one of the most regarded painter and his two sisters Elizabeth and Susan became members of Arts and crafts movement.
William's upbringing in this type of environment was sure to have an impact on his life and poetry. Yeats' early years are marked by events like rise of the Home rule movement and the momentum of nationalism and a power shift away from the Protestant minority. These events had a deep impact on the young Yeats' mind and would reflect in his literary work. On 26 January 1877, William Yeats was sent to the Godolphin primary school where he studied for the next four years. All along his schooling, Yeast showed a particular interest in zoology and biology but failed to achieve anything of distinction. The most astonishing part of his education remains the fact that he did remarkably poor in mathematics and languages as a student.
In 1881, Yeats enrolled into Erasmus Smith High School, Dublin and wrote his first poem and essay The Poetry of Samuel Ferguson in 1885. The poem was first published in the Dublin University Review. In 1884, William Yeats joined the Metropolitan School of Art (the National College of Art and Design), studying art till 1886. During this period, he wrote his first individual piece, a poem depicting a magician. Since then he started writing poems on various themes and plays. His initial works were deeply influenced with the creations of great poet P.B. Shelly, and later shifted towards pre-Raphaelite verse and Irish myth and traditions. In his maturing years, Yeats came to appreciate the writing of William Blake.
Early career & Life
In 1887, Yeats and his family returned to London where he established the Rymer's Club, a group of poets in 1890. The group, later known as the "Tragic generation" released two anthologies in 1892 and 1894. Yeats' remarkable interest in mysticism, spiritualism, astrology and occultism drew criticism from his contemporaries who termed it as a lack of intellectuality. His first serious work, The Isle of Statutes, was a fantasy poem and was published in Dublin University Review. In 1886, he published a pamphlet Mosada: A Dramatic Poem followed by another collection The Wanderings of Orisin and Other Poems, published in 1889.
The Wanderings of Orisin was his first and probably the most extensive work, as he never attempted another. The poem was largely based upon the struggle of life, a theme that would frequently appear in his future works. During this period, he also wrote Poems (1895), The Secret Rose (1897) and The Wind Among the Reeds (1899). In 1885, Yeats became a co founder of the Dublin Hermetic Order and as a result, was made its chairman. At that time, he was also involved in the Theosophical Society and with Hermeticism.
In 1889, Yeats met Maud Gonne, a poet, feminist and a fervent nationalist. Yeats became increasingly passionate about her who became his muse and source of unrequited love. He proposed marriage to her at least three times; in 1899, 1900 and 1901 and was rejected each time which was probably a result of his lack of enthusiasm to contribute in the revolutionary movement. In 1903, Maud married a nationalist revolutionary Major MacBride, who was later executed by British forces. Even though, they continued their friendship and Maud remained his inspiration and an immense impact on his life. In 1908, their relationship was finally consummated as he recalls the event in his poem A Man Young and Old. However, it did not help the relationship flourish beyond friendship and she finally turned down his last proposal in 1916.
Marriage & Family
On 20 October 1917, Yeats married a friend George Hyde Lees whom he had met in 1911 at the age of 51. She shared Yeats’ interest in mystical and esoteric subjects and helped him with the automatic writing. Despite a huge age difference the marriage proved happy and the couple had two children; daughter Anne, born in 1919 and son Michael, born in 1921. Yeats wrote two poems "A Prayer for My Daughter" and "A Prayer for My Son" for them. George proved to be good wife and helped him with his creations; among them is A Vision, a book elucidating his philosophy and use of symbolism which was published in 1921.
Abbey theatre and Later Work
In 1899, Yeats co founded the Irish Literary Theatre in Dublin which was to be a platform for the Celtic and Irish plays. As its chief dramatist, one of the first plays performed there was his Catheleen ni Houlihan, with Gonne portraying the main character. The theatre, which was also known as the National Theatre of Ireland, opened in 1904, and soon became the flagship for the young talent of Ireland. His other works which gained him praise as a dramatist include The Countess Cathleen (1892), The Land of Heart’s Desire (1894) and The King’s Threshold (1904). In 1911, the Abbey Theatre set on a tour to the United States. In 1903, Yeats embarked on his first lecture tour to the United States followed by his second, third and fourth trip in 1914, 1920 and 1932 respectively. In 1904, Yeats founded the Cuala Press with the help of his sister.
Nobel Prize, Later Years & Death
In 1923, Yeats was honored the Nobel Prize for Literature for his immense contribution to the English and Irish literature. In 1922, he was appointed to the first Irish Senate and was consecutively reelected for the second term in 1925. In the same year his book A Vision was published. In 1924, a coinage committee appointed him as its chairman for the selection of the first currency of Irish Free State and took retirement from the senate in 1928. Yeats was a fervent supporter of republicanism for all his life, but towards the end of his life, he became cynical about the effectiveness of a democratic form of government. At times, he also showed praise for the dictator Benito Mussolini, though he refrained from fascism in his later years.
Yeats underwent a Steinach operation in 1934 and despite his severe illness, took the editorship of the Oxford Book of Modern Verses in 1936. He passed away on 28 January 1939 in Menton, France and was buried at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. Keeping with his wishes, he was removed from there and was reentered in Drumcliffe, County Sligo in 1948.